The American Committee on Italian Migration: Success That Can Be Repeated
Mary Brown, PhD
Center for Migration Studies
February 25, 2022
February 2022 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the American Committee on Italian Migration (ACIM). ACIM was innovative for its time, organizing immigrants and their US-born descendants to serve the immigrant community and to advocate for immigration reform. It was an experiment that offers valuable lessons for immigration activists today.
The first lesson is the importance of maintaining a global perspective when discussing human migration. ACIM was the brainchild of people with this mentality. During World War II, Juvenal Marchisio, ACIM’s founder, set aside his career as a judge in the family court in Brooklyn, New York, to head American Relief for Italy, gathering donations in cash and in-kind from numerous local charity drives, shipping them to Italy, and distributing them among those internally displaced by the war. The post-war years taught Marchisio the importance of migration to recovery, resettling those who could not return home, and giving wider opportunities to those looking for work. Similarly, Monsignor Luigi Ligutti’s long association with the American Catholic hierarchy’s National Catholic Rural Life Conference and his connections in the Italian American community allowed him to identify leadership for a new project, immigration reform. Monsignor Ligutti remembered a time when migration was freer; he and his family left Italy for the United States in 1912.
Ligutti understood that in the 1920s, people with prejudices against immigrants had changed the laws, and he knew those laws could change again. What was needed was for citizens to make clear to their legislative representatives that immigration reform was what they wanted. What the citizens needed, then, was an organization to voice their concerns. And that organization needed moral and practical leadership. Juvenal Marchisio provided experienced leadership in fundraising and communicating a message. To focus on the moral issues of migration, Monsignor Ligutti suggested Rev. Ceasar Donanzan, c.s. Father Caesar, as everyone called him, was a member of the Missionaries of Saint Charles, Scalabrinians. Father Caesar took a step away from hands-on pastoral work to serve as Executive Secretary of ACIM as it organized into a political force.
The second lesson of ACIM was to link the personal and the political. The ACIM attracted mostly Italian Americans, migrants, and their adult offspring, who knew from experience what migration meant for them. Many had family in Italy who had been devastated by the war, and they wanted their family member to have a chance to resettle elsewhere, or at least find work that would support the rebuilding of their home and community in Italy. Father Caesar and others also built the link between the personal and the political into the ACIM structure. ACIM had “chapters” based in Italian American communities around the country. It incorporated a traditional Catholic organizational method in that it had a “Women’s Division,” allowing women to collaborate with friends and neighbors and to rise to leadership roles. The national office in New York City provided members with information about restrictive immigration policies and with practical steps that could be taken to reform them, thus channeling personal association and interests into political organization and activity.
A third lesson was to combine different sorts of action. On the one hand, ACIM advocated for changes in US immigration law. It also assisted individual immigrants with paperwork: Italian and American military veterans’ pensions and Social Security, American immigration visas, and, after 1965, Medicare applications. Providing such assistance helped spread the word about the need for immigration reform. Modern agencies have taken this lesson to heart, providing direct assistance, which in turn provides insights to stimulate advocacy. The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) has published a report on the importance of local community action to help migrants take advantage of changes in the laws that may benefit them.
A fourth lesson of ACIM was the importance of multifaceted lobbying. ACIM worked strategically to keep its message before Congress in varying ways. Every month ACIM members received the Dispatch, a newsletter that usually included at least one article urging the members to write their representatives about a piece of pending legislation. ACIM members made biannual trips to Washington to visit their own Congressional Representatives and Senators and also members of the Italian American caucus who might be sympathetic to the cause, whether they had ACIM members as constituents or not. In 1965, when immigration reform became a hot topic in Congress, Father Joseph Cogo, who had succeeded Father Ceasar as Executive Secretary, testified before Congress about ACIM’s position on the immigration bill.
A final lesson of ACIM was to give everyone something to do and, if possible, a fun time doing it. ACIM’s campaign for reform included the opportunity to travel. The trips to Washington combined lobbying with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. In 1963, ACIM delegates formed the audience before which President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to send immigration legislation to Congress. In the years when they did not go to Washington, ACIM members could sign up for a trip to Rome. The visit included lectures on the social, economic, legal, and political factors affecting migration out of Italy, and papal audiences, receptions at the American embassy and in Italian government offices, and visits to cultural attractions.
ACIM also made efforts to put the fun in fundraising. ACIM had one grand annual event in New York City. The format varied: the 1950s saw dinner dances at the Waldorf Astoria; during the 1970s ACIM booked space on an Italian cruise ship on a layover in New York Harbor. Most years the event honored someone who had given great service to the Italian American immigrant community, but the planners of the event also booked entertainers such as Jimmy Durante. Women’s auxiliary chapters throughout the United States, operating under the leadership of Yolanda Coda, held brunches, luncheons, dinners, dinner dances, fashion shows, and bridge tournaments. Money raised was forwarded to ACIM’s headquarters in New York to support its social services and its reform efforts.
And it worked. As historian Daniela Battisti has shown, in the 1950s ACIM succeeded in shaping legislation drafted as responses to short-term problems: postwar reconstruction, then floods and earthquakes in Italy that required additional resettlement measures. These many short-term measures paved the way for thinking of migration as an ongoing issue. ACIM’s work also helped create a new image of Italian Americans. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century Italians were excluded on the grounds that, because they were not of the same ethnic background as the founders of the country, they might not assimilate to it. ACIM, though, focused on a very conventional method of reform: petitioning one’s elected representatives for changes in the law. ACIM’s efforts contributed to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the national quota system, ending the practice of distributing visas according to some imagined ability to assimilate.
However, some of the features that contributed to ACIM’s success have turned out to be a sort of “Achilles heel.” ACIM succeeded because it was able to rally Italian Americans into a cohesive group, working together to advance a cause of common interest. It failed to build bridges with other immigrant groups working toward the same cause. The same 1965 law that reopened American immigration for people from Italy created the first limits on immigration from other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Instead of working on the new problem of achieving fairness in immigration law while recognizing the different needs of different nations, ACIM continued to focus on Italian immigration issues. ACIM collected relief for the victims of the devastating 1980 Irpinia earthquake, and its social service arm facilitated immigration for some of those whose homes had been destroyed. In 1986, ACIM lobbied to prevent the Immigration Reform and Control Act from limiting the ability of US citizens to sponsor the immigration of siblings, an important pathway for Italian migration. However, the Schengen Treaty in the European Union made immigration to the United States only one option for Italians seeking a wider labor market, and over time, the demand for family migration out of Italy was replaced by the same kind of labor emigration seen from India or Brazil, countries that educated people but could not employ them. For third- and fourth-generation Italian Americans, emigration out of Italy was not as important as it had been for their immigrant grandparents and World War II-era parents. ACIM ceased to function in 2000. This was unfortunate because all the knowledge, skill, and political infrastructure the Italian American community had built up could have been used to benefit generations of migrants from different countries, to advocate for them and to give them a head start on forming their own platform.
It is natural that over time an interest in immigration becomes an interest in ethnicity, in preserving one’s community and culture. However, it should not be too much to ask everyone who has immigration in their past to remember that experience has value for others. It can generate empathy for new immigrant friends, neighbors, and co-workers. It can be a source of support for reform of immigration law that can benefit both the new immigrants and the long-settled.